Tower Hamlets Unison have completed their third week of strike action. The strike was on 13, 14 and 17 August, with both physical and virtual rallies.
This is the latest stretch of industrial action in a long struggle by the union against the scandalous ‘Tower Rewards’ scheme. This saw the entire 4,000-strong workforce sacked, so as to force them onto inferior contracts that they had already overwhelmingly rejected.
“The very fact that the council has had to unilaterally impose the new contracts,” wrote Unison general secretary David Prentis in a letter to the Mayor, “is a clear sign that staff do not accept the changes nor believe they provide ‘rewards’ for the majority of the workforce.”
The strike has been marred with anti-union tactics, such as the police being called to picket lines during the last round of strikes. In an all too familiar alliance of police and managerial tyranny, two activists were arrested on the grounds of ‘secondary picketing’.
“Thatcher’s tactics are being used against us,” commented Unison’s chief Tower Hamlets negotiator John McLoughlin. “And of all times during the pandemic.”
Most shocking of all, these Tory union-busting tactics have been utilised by a Labour council and Mayor.
Today was fantastic, following our pickets we marched down to Whitechapel where we protested with all of our staff from the picket lines! @MayorJohnBiggs We know you have heard about what we did so you ready to talk yet? pic.twitter.com/mzdZE90FOn— Tower Hamlets UNISON (@UNISON_TwrHmlts) August 17, 2020
“Mayor John Biggs and this Labour council say they want to clap us for our service to the community,” remarked assistant branch secretary of Tower Hamlets Unison Keri Anne to local Socialist Appeal members on the picket line last month. “But at the very time they are sacking us.”
Despite this, the workers continue to show a radical spirit as the struggle progresses.
More Cuts? Fight Back!
One striking council worker relayed to local Socialist Appeal members on the picket this week that rumours are circulating of more cuts in the pipeline.
Allegedly, the council plans to close two buildings used to provide essential council services to local residents: Albert Jacob house and John Onslow house. It is alleged that all of the workers from these two buildings will be crammed into the overcrowded Mulberry house, or will be expected to work from home.
The services currently run from the buildings – reportedly soon to be closed – include the Homeless and Housing Unit, which is vital to protecting the most at-risk members of the local community. The effectiveness of the unit relies heavily on their ability to interview homeless community members in person. Being forced to continue their work from home, therefore, amounts to the council taking the decision to scrap the service entirely.
This is both a legacy of a decade of Tory austerity, and a result of the continued cuts being forced on councils. A tsunami of cuts await. The fightback against these starts here.
Unite behind the workers
Moving forward, it is crucial that the Labour Party shows greater solidarity with the Tower Hamlets strikers.
As a result of the perseverance of the striking workers, over 50 Labour councillors and MPs have recently signed an open letter in support of the strikers, praising their courage and calling on Mayor Biggs to “re-engage and negotiate with Unison”. Signees include Labour MPs Diane Abbott, John McDonnell, Richard Burgon, Nadia Whittome, Paula Barker, and local MP Apsana Begum.
It is important that Labour Party members continue to campaign for their representatives at every level to fight against the ‘Tower Rewards’ scheme.
Once again, however, there has been silence from the right-wing party leadership on this issue. This reveals the direction that Keir Starmer intends to take Labour.
The Labour Party was set up as the political voice of the working class. It should therefore support workers’ struggles as a matter of fact.
The sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey on fictitious claims of anti-semitism leaves little reason to believe that ‘Sir’ Starmer will join the fight. After all, the truth is that RLB was fired because she is on the left, and has publicly supported workers in their opposition to the Tories – such as the teachers’ unions.
The rank-and-file of the party, however, remains far to the left of the leadership. It is therefore essential that we unite behind the Tower Hamlets strikers and apply pressure on the party to do so too.
Mass struggle against austerity
In the face of a spineless party leadership, it is important that the grassroots of the labour movement continues to pick up the slack.
The continued lively spirit on the picket lines shows that there is a clear appetite for this within Unison. Indeed, thanks to the pressure of ordinary Unison activists, right-wing general secretary David Prentis was forced to acknowledge that “our members’ mandate to strike action remains steadfast”. Prentis also stated that the council workers would “potentially be re-balloting for further industrial action”.
Other affected unions should also be brought into the dispute. The NEU (National Education Union) already had a strike mandate, but didn’t set a strike date. A way must be found of involving the NEU, GMB and Unite in the dispute, to present a united front against the council.
Pressure within the Labour Party should be maintained and stepped up, at a local and national level. This is not just a local dispute, after all, but is being seen as a test case for Labour (and Tory) councils across the country.
Locally, Labour already supports the strikers. That pressure must be brought to bear on Mayor John Biggs to drop his proposals and negotiate with the unions representing the workforce.
The success of this strike has the potential to be the beginning of an organised mass struggle by Labour councils and trade unions against austerity everywhere. All of this hinges on the labour movement uniting behind the striking Tower Hamlets workers.
As assistant branch secretary of Tower Hamlets Unison said on the picket: “We are going to fight this. There is no way we are going to take this lying down. No justice, no peace.”